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Family Reading and Science Program

Each year, the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History brings a unique collection of children’s workshops to libraries in southeast Michigan with its Family Reading and Science Program. Content changes from year to year; this year, in fun, kid-friendly settings, children learned to prepare, enjoy and understand foods from around the globe; to appreciate the likenesses and differences between races; and to recognize the inspirations that drive the universal language of music.
Michigan Nightlight: Tell us briefly about your program in terms of it purpose and who it serves.
University of Michigan Museum of Natural History Library Outreach Program Manager Amanda Paige: Family Reading and Science Program Workshop Series serves families all over southeast Michigan. We took our workshops to more than 40 libraries this year including libraries in Detroit, Farmington Hills, Inkster, and Jackson.
The series is made up of three one-hour sessions, and the workshops are designed for kids from six to 11 years old; each child comes to the program accompanied by an adult. We hold these workshops with a specific goal in mind: to increase science literacy in all age groups, and to show parents that science is something that they can do with their kids at home. We also highlight the ways that museums and libraries can be used together.
What really differentiates this program?
We are different from other museum outreach programs in several ways. We are unique in the fact that we engage the adults as much as we engage the children; the parents stay active and involved with the program and their child throughout the
This is not a program where parents sit in the back of the room and check email or play “Angry Birds.”  They sit with their
This is not a program where parents sit in the back of the room and check email or play "Angry Birds."
children while the facilitator introduces the day’s theme and then they accompany the kids from station to station and participate in the activities that are designed around that theme.
For example, we explored the concept of universal music in one of our workshops this year, and all of the kids get to make their own instruments. So, while their parents might not want to make a shoebox guitar, they will learn some things about how sound works, how music affects people in different ways, and what influences music in different cultures.
What are the keys to success for your program?
We have enthusiastic facilitators; they are college students, recent college graduates and the occasional retiree or community member – and each of them has a passion to help kids.
Engaging topics are another key to our success. They are often driven by what the museum is doing, which is a great chance to combine the workshops with books in the library on the same theme. A child might ask a question that we don’t know the specific answer to, but the answer “go grab a book and let’s find out,” is a great way for kids learn more about the value of libraries and explore the topics further after workshops are finished.
We combine demonstration and hands-on activities in each one, which kids love to do. This year, kids they made their own bread in a workshop centered on food and the science behind it. They went from station to station, grinding wheat into flour with mortar and pestles, and they did some experiments with yeast to learn why it is such an important ingredient in the
I feel strongly that we have to fight to provide exposure to programs, like this one, to under-resourced communities and since we do that, economic, educational and racial equity is built right in.
bread making process – and to really see yeast doing its job. “This is hard!” is a comment we heard repeatedly about the work that goes into making your own bread.
What existing challenges remain with this program and how do you plan to overcome them?
Funding. For the past three years, we have been generously supported by a three-year grant from the Toyota USA Foundation. It has entirely covered the costs of running the program, and we have been able to expand the Family Reading and Science Program Workshop Series since Toyota USA stepped in. We went from being able to serve 10 libraries in 2010 to the 40 libraries that we can serve now. Last year we were able to reach 1,747 people.
That funding is in its final year, however, and we are actively seeking support for 2014 and beyond, so we do not have to go back to cobbling our funds through smaller grant funding. Because we partner with libraries, we feel the pinch of their shrinking budgets. Each library pays a $150 buy-in fee to host the program for all three workshops, and libraries cannot afford higher fees to help absorb the costs. We are working hard to overcome that challenge.
How do you innovate programming? Where do the ideas come from and how do you know if they are going to work?
The workshop themes change annually, and since we try to pair them with the museum’s current themes, we have a mechanism for innovation built right in. Some of our past topics have been outer space, the importance of water to our world, dinosaurs, and climate changes. They were all very popular.
I am obsessed with learning new things, so I’m willing to take risks when it comes to planning workshop activities. Part of the fun of my job is testing out ideas. Also, because of the Toyota USA funds, we have leeway and resources to really test things out and make adjustments to the program each year before it goes onto our outreach menu.
How does your program address issues of equity, especially economic, educational and racial?
I feel strongly that we have to fight to provide exposure to programs, like this one, to under-resourced communities and since we do that, economic, educational and racial equity is built right in. It's not something that the program explicitly addresses, but since we build workshops around museum exhibits and events, this happens naturally.
Right now, the museum has the traveling exhibit, “Race: Are we so different?” and that inspired one of our 2013 workshops.
Also, because we reach such a wide range of library communities, from Hartland to Monroe to Jackson, we are bringing opportunities at no cost to families that might not otherwise be able to experience the fun side of science. When the workshops are finished, we bus everyone from their home libraries to an end-of the-year party at the museum – and I know that some of them might not be able to visit the museum otherwise. 

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  • Amy Harris
    Impacting lives through museum learning


  • University of Michigan Museum of Natural History
    The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History promotes understanding and appreciation of the natural world and of our places in it. It creates exhibits and programs that inspire diverse audiences to engage in exploration of scientific research ...


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